October 9, 2013

Loran Smith: Victory, but at what price?

— Time will tell if Georgia’s stressful success this past weekend against Tennessee will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory — a win so costly that it is tantamount to defeat. Can the Bulldogs continue to win big games with so many players out on offense and so many who are not ready on defense, with both situations compounded by injuries?

Pyrrhic victories often bring about struggles that wind up ruining the victors. You don’t have to be a Greek historian to appreciate the circumstances. As you analyze the Tennessee game, you lament the losses but are moved to express gratitude for victory. The mantra incumbent upon the Bulldogs is to accentuate the positive with an appreciation for the fact that this team, despite its Pyrrhic troubles, is finding a way to win.

Perhaps at this juncture one can readily see the importance of scheduling. Playing non-conference games against heavyweight opponents, namely Clemson, is great for the non-partisan soothsayers and television pundits, but it’s not good for business. The fallout from playing a heavyweight schedule is that attrition, when the playoffs begin next year, may determine the national champion.

In other words, you might win the prize only if you are the healthiest. If you play a dozen games, as is the case, you need home games where you have the advantage to bring about opportunities to heal and regroup. Fortunately for Georgia, the Bulldogs have an athletic director who understands this.

In the final analysis, focus on this perspective. Georgia, which did not play with the urgency to tack on a touchdown in the second quarter (another score and a 24-3 halftime lead would have likely affected the psychology of the day) allowed Tennessee to stay within a two-possession opportunity. With today’s offenses that is nothing.

That brings me to Aaron Murray, who is putting up Heisman-worthy numbers. As a quarterback, he has experienced the vicissitudes of being the focal point of the team. As goes Aaron Murray, so goes the team. Of all the successes he has enjoyed playing for the Bulldogs, all other highlights pale against the drive he directed in the fourth quarter at Tennessee to get his team into overtime and bring about opportunity to win the game.

With 1:54 on the clock and 75 yards to the Tennessee end zone, he calmly moved his team in what Larry Munson would have noted as “a hundred and fifty-four seconds.” With one timeout! Your two best backs — Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall — are lame and out of the lineup. Two starting receivers — Michael Bennett and Justin Scott Wesley — have joined them on the trainer’s table.

Has there ever been a more critical drive in Georgia history to meet up with mission accomplished? I don’t think so.

If a championship had been on the line, it would have been a drive for the ages.

We can now see the folly of anticipation. Yes, following LSU, you might have succumbed to thinking that this team might well run the table, but such thinking is always insane. You only think in those terms when there are three or four games to go. Even then, it is not advisable. There are too many variables, like critical injuries.

Georgia’s defense is not a championship defense at this point. Perhaps it can grow into one, but is there enough time? Giving up points is one thing. That is the order of the day in these times.

On Sunday, the Broncos beat the Cowboys 41-38. Seventy-nine points. There was a time when you could have scored that many points, plus a dozen, and won the national championship.

Before Saturday’s game, an on-the-field conversation with Tennessee assistant Willie Martinez, Georgia’s former defensive coordinator, centered around the fact that kids today don’t want to play defense.

“Where are the Thomas Davises?” he asked.

He also sounded a warning about Southeastern Conference dominance. Oregon, which defeated Tennessee 59-14, has recruited players who are not as big as you might normally find in the SEC, but they have extra speed. In other words, a 260-pound lineman can hold his own against a lineman 30 pounds heavier because of speed and quickness that becomes the equalizer.

Georgia is faced with an offensive and defensive challenge. The defense is sorely in need of playmakers (they have just one interception and three forced fumbles in five games) and the offense needs to produce points to cover for the defense’s deficiencies.

Can the offensive production (39.8 points per game) continue with critical injuries to playmakers?

Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are both out for the season with torn anterior cruciate ligaments in their right knees. Another receiver, Michael Bennett, is likely to miss the next couple of games and perhaps more.

Good news remains, however. These Bulldogs find a way to win.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.